Back To Flats or, Flats For My Back
Back To Flats is a bit of a misnomer. I’ve occasionally rode flats over the years to avoid developing too many bad habits. But since I began riding it’s been on clipless pedals. Chronic lower back pain has me working on different solutions to stay on the bike. So Flats For My Back might be a more accurate title… Check out a blog: Back to Flats Riding Flat Pedals.
Don’t have back pain? Keep reading it’s about more than me getting old. What are the differences on trail? Beginner hits and misses. I enlisted BikeCo Pro Rider Kevin Aiello for some advice / insight.
In the theme of lessening lower back pain issues I’ve worked on a lot of life details. Better core exercises (I should do more), lessening inflammation by acknowledging food allergies (actually this made a huge difference – but damn I miss cheese), wearing better shoes, paying attention to posture, a stand up desk, etc, etc. While these steps lessened frequency and intensity of the pain my SI joints tended to act up the more I rode. I also noted that no matter how well I stretched my calves and hamstrings were super tight after riding. My right knee would feel tight as well.
I decided my next move should be to try to decrease the stresses on my lower extremities to see if that in turn decreased pain in my SI. I worked aligning and realigning cleats for many rides without finding a sweet spot. It was time for something different, it was time to try flat pedals.
For many years I’ve clipped in and out during climbs to improve muscle / joint comfort. (Probably should have been paying attention to that…) I figured flat pedals would allow easier movement, easing joint and muscle loads. In my head I imagined moving around maybe twice as much as I did on my clipless setup. It turns out I’m moving my feet around much, much less.
I ride much more duck-footed than I could setup with cleats. My right foot also settles about an inch, inch and a quarter further outboard than my left. I pedaled several miles without wiggling around at all. That shocked me. But not Kevin Aiello, who rides flat pedals just about exclusively.
“Flat pedals allow riders to see how their body wants to align. Even when I work with riders who ride clipless I suggest to spinning for a half hour or so on flats so we can see where the clips are messing with them. You can see where your body ‘wants’ to be. One a side note warming up can help with painful knees. I generally warm up on flats before riding road, where I do clip in.”
I looked to see if I could setup cleats in the approximate position my feet settled into – and that’s not currently going to happen. I’m hoping that as I re-balance the muscles I will find a more “normalized” setup but for now I will take being able to more comfortably pedal the bike as a win.
The intention of this blog isn’t to diagnose, treat or cure anyone’s aches or pains. By no means will I say that pedaling duck foot and off center is the ideal, correct, or the most efficient. What I will say is acknowledging and addressing issues that hinder your riding is important to continue enjoying the sport. Like many of our clients I find riding bikes is important to my physical as well as mental health and don’t want it taken from me by something that can be addressed.
Throw on flats and rip right? Sorta. Kinda. It helps to start with the right pedal. Kevin shed some light on it for me.
“I like to have the front row of pins in between the ball of my foot and toes with the rear row of pins directly in the deepest part of my arch. That’s my personal preference, but if I were telling someone what flats to buy its’ the one that fit their size foot similar to what I just explained.”
I ended up going with the Race Face Atlas pedal. It fits my foot well and the oversized bearing ensures a long service life.
Pedaling flats has some notable differences.
First you lose the pull on the backside of your pedal stroke. Well I was never good at that really anyway I suppose. Although I think I was better with my right than my left as it took a minute to get my left foot pushing an equal amount as my right.
I had some nerves about riding flats again. I’m 100% uninterested in the shin snake bite that I’m sure is coming at some point. Sitting there, pedaling to the first descent I fidgeted with my feet. I was horrified as my foot pivoted all over the place with the slightest input. Then it dawned on me. I was sitting. Once I stood the extra weight created a much more locked in interface.
One of the first things I noticed on the descent was it took me a couple seconds to find a comfortable footing. Not a big deal and I’m sure muscle memory will improve on that.
I noticed that I needed to weight my inside, or “high” foot in corners. This wasn’t really for bike performance but to ensure my foot stayed on the pedal! You can tell it’s important to keep your heels down as well. Figuring why go through the entire learning curve I asked Kevin about general tips to get up to speed on flats.
“I feel I can drop my heels more on flats getting my weight lower to the ground. I usually try to put 90 percent of my weight on the outside pedal and collapsing my center of mass into the center of the bike. This allows my bike to stay more planted and allows my momentum to get pushed out of the exit of the turn in the right direction. I keep a minimal amount of weight on my inside “high” pedal so I’m ready at a moments notice to take a foot off and dab the ground. You can get a good supple feel for your tires traction with flats as well.”
OK, what about jumping? I’m not really someone who “airs out” a bike but I’m comfortable floating a takeoff to landing or hip here and there. How do I avoid the feeling that the bike and I are drifting apart in the air?
“If we’re talking about beginners I would say learn to preload your suspension and bunny hop first. Pulling on the bars, then pinching the cranks and pulling the back end up. From there, find a centered position on your bike and start hitting small jumps to see how you and your bike react. Once you are comfortable on small jumps try preloading the bikes suspension into the lip and mimic the same motion you used to bunny hop. Another thing to remember is to not make any sudden jerky movements. Let the bike and your body roll through the jump while staying relaxed . I would start on either small jumps with no landing or small table tops and make adjustments from there.”
Wait, pinch the cranks?
“Yeah it comes natural after so long but if you barely point your toes in you can pinch your heels after like you’re on a moto. If you have good pedals the front row will stay planted and the heels will pinch and you’re locked in.”
It’s only been a couple rides so far but I have noticed positive changes particularly in my right knee. I’ve found that I ride uphill with the pedals further towards my heel than I ride downhill. Not sure why or what that represents yet, just a note. I’m working on my Kevin Aiello jumping skills – but I doubt that I’m going to be taking photo opportunities from that guy, even if he gave me rad advice!
Thanks to BikeCo Pro Rider Kevin Aiello for the quotes!
Kevin. On flats. As usual..